by Enrique Lescure
We all have seen the news from Iraq and Syria from the last year. Beheadings, immolations, persecutions of ethnic and religious minorities. This dramaturgy has something as unusual in today’s world as a clear villain. The Islamic State. The Caliphate. Daesh.
That sinister group has killed tens of thousands of people in both Iraq and Syria, have plans of world conquest that makes Adolf Hitler’s Lebensraum look modest, and have even tried to acquire weapons of mass destruction to perpetuate Holocausts against Christians, Jews and Shi’ites.
Right now, a counter-offensive consisting of an unlikely alliance of the US airforce, the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are now engaged in an offensive against Tikrit, the childhood city of Saddam Hussein and an important Sunni town. The IS are not growing any more in Iraq and Syria, and are fighting on three or four fronts against their enemies – united by nothing but their common hatred of IS.
So, does this mean that it is likely there will be peace soon in the Middle East?
Will the Middle East know peace the day the Islamic State lies crushed?
No, if it only was so simple. Truth is, that the IS are not a cause of the current war. And the underlying causes for the current war will still persist even after the collapse of the IS.
The formation of Iraq and Syria
The area between the highlands of Turkey and Iran, and the deserts of Arabia is known as the Fertile Crescent, a largely flat plain (with the exception of the hills of Caanan and the mountains of Lebanon). This area is where agricultural civilization was born, 12.000 years ago, and where the first cities and states emerged. Syria, Israel, Palestine and Iraq are boasting some of the oldest archeological remains known to humankind.
Despite this, the modern states of Iraq and Syria are pretty recent inventions. While partially drawn from ancient geographic delineations (I am surprised the British did not christen Iraq into Mesopotamia), what decided the border between Iraq and Syria was primarily an old WW1 agreement between Britain and France, dividing the possessions of the decaying Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.
Following the war, Iraq and Syria became mandates for the League of Nations (the predecessor to the UN), administered by Britain and France respectively. One modern analogy would be the status of Kosovo between 1999 and 2008, when it was formally a Serb autonomous province administered by the UN with NATO as those responsible for order on the ground.
Britain and France did however not desire truly independent states, and instead favoured dependency and weak local administrations. Copying their methodologies in Africa, these colonial powers imposed systems were ethnic and sectarian minority groups were favoured as administrators and officer cadres. In Iraq, the Sunni minority were favoured, while in Syria and Lebanon the French favoured Christians and Alevites.
This strategy failed to ensure European hegemony over the Fertile Crescent, partially because of the Second World War, and partially because many educated Arabs were rejecting their sectarian identities during this era, instead striving towards Pan-Arabism.
Syria – which was a republic – saw the political power move into the hands of nationalists during the 1950’s, but political instability led first to a short-lived Union with Egypt, and in 1970 towards the Assad dictatorship, which came to draw its security staff and officer cadres from the Alevite minority.
In Iraq, the British had imposed a constitutional monarchy consisting of the Hedjazi Hashemite royal family (which still controls the throne in Jordan). In 1958, a violent revolution supported by Moscow led to the deaths of the Hashemite king and the Pro-western prime minister Nuri as-Said. The military regime was in its turn toppled in 1968 by the Ba’ath Party, then headed by Saddam Hussein. The Saddam regime saw challenges in the form of increasing Kurdish national sentiments and the rise of Shi’ite islamist ideology in the south. Instead of choosing to include these groups into the national project, Saddam instituted brutal repression, both through military means and through his security service, the Mukhabarat.
The preparations of the current drama
We should not herein describe the US reasons for the Iraqi intervention – it would take too much space. What we can say is that decision-makers in America decided to opt for a strategy inspired by the successful management of Post-war Germany, which meant a combination of “denazification” and introduction of democratic institutions. In Iraq’s case, this meant that the Ba’ath Party was banned and that all Ba’ath Party members were purged from positions of public responsibility.
This would maybe not have been so problematic if it wasn’t so that most public officials were members of the Ba’ath Party, not because of conviction but because it was a must in Saddam’s Iraq. Thus, large segments of Iraq’s managerial class were banned from their professions. This included the Iraqi army, which meant that the US had to sponsor and direct the build-up of a new army.
Introducing parliamentary democracy to Iraq (luckily, the US did not introduce a US-style presidential system, which would probably have caused the current situation to explode far earlier), the US unintentionally handed over power to Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. Since most active Shi’ite politicians previously either had led lives in exile in neighbouring Iran (an ideological adversary to America and Israel) or had been parts of underground anti-Saddam groups, professing their religious identity and being at least morally backed by Iran.
Leaving aside the rivalry between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the immediate cause for the meteoric rise of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2013-2014 was – apart from the civil war in neighbouring Syria – the fact that many Sunni professionals, officers and ordinary citizens supported the IS when they moved into Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit. This was not primarily because the IS was popular, but because the Shia-dominated Al-Maliki government was loathed amongst the Sunni minority, and also had began to repress the Sunnis, by purging Sunni politicians and bureaucrats within their own government.
Iraq should be dissolved
Right now, Iraq’s Shia-dominated army is, together with the US airforce and Iranian-supported militias, striving to retake
Tikrit and Mosul from the Islamic State. This offensive has proven to be slow and grinding, and still the Islamic State are holding out in parts of Tikrit. More controversially, there are signs that the Shi’ite militias are committing violations against the Sunni civilian population, perpetuating the grievances that led to the support of the Islamic State in the first place.
There was a time when Iraq (and to a larger extent, Syria) was a potential nation-state, not only geographically but also socially. However, oppression, exclusion, multiple wars and institutional damage beyond repair have blasted such a progress beyond oblivion.
For example, one of the reasons that the Islamic State has not moved into Baghdad is that Baghdad is no longer a religiously mixed city, but rather has become overwhelmingly Shia-dominated, following the Iraqi civil war of 2005 – 2009 (which in itself is but an earlier phase of this war).
With the lack of stable institutions and a country divided in ethnic and sectarian lines, politics in Iraq becomes less about policies and ideologies, and more about what ethnic or sectarian group you are belonging to. The perpetuation of Iraq as a (under-theory) unified state will serve to perpetuate the very instability that it is meant to counter.
One proposal for a Post-Iraqi future is an Iraq divided along ethnic and sectarian lines, as seen as this map up to the right. This solution however is sub-optimal. It will solve the issue of who should control Iraq in a winner-takes-it-all-gamble, by ending the very game that allows for such a situation to fester. It would not however serve to protect minorities such as Christians, Yezidis, Druzes and Alevites from hostile majority populations. Such a situation, which aims for more but smaller nation-states, will not serve the aims of secularism, or protect the objective interests of the Middle East in the long term.
A confederational solution
A solution could be to establish a general armistice and then hold a joint peace conference for Syria and Iraq. This conference would establish two border changes. Firstly, an independent Kurdish nation-state should be formed, composed of Kurdish-majority regions in Iraq and Syria. This Kurdistan will be a “kleinkurdistan“, which won’t be politically adjoined to Kurdish-majority regions of Turkey and Iran. There should therefore be a necessity to include Turkey and Iran in the process and ensure a solution that can be acceptable to all parties.
As for Iraq and Syria, both states should be abolished and replaced not with a multum of nation-states (Most of Syria is impossible to divide into minor states), but with a Mashriqi Confederation stretching from Aleppo to Basrah. This confederation would out of necessity be very de-centralised, and consist of self-governing cantones which might be arranged after ethnic and sectarian lines. The Confederation would have a strong, pluralist constitution, affirming the equal rights of all citizens no matter their professed faith. The confederational government should – like in Lebanon – have legislated it so that representation is guaranteed for all groups (and yes, I know Lebanon had a bloody civil war in 1973-1990).
For the first decade or so, this confederation would probably need to be under a UN mandate, until a new generation of leaders could grow up and assume the reins of government.
Right now, the Middle East is moving towards its own version of the Thirty Years War, as Saudi Arabia and Iran are clashing over Yemen, and the Turkish-Saudi-Iranian rivalry is left unresolved by the collapse of the Islamic State. After the fall of the Islamic State, it would probably be a good idea to scrap the Sykes-Picot agreement and have a regional conference that delineates a new order.
Any new order that aspires to be stable and guarantee the human rights of all citizens – religious minorities included – must however also entail an institutional and cultural transformation. In a situation where defined collectives with a winner-takes-it-all-mentality are clashing over the control of the state and are the foundations for the political movements, it is impossible to establish a fair bureaucracy and good governance. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that the growing generations should learn lessons about communication and conflict resolution from this bloody war.
Or else, it will be truly meaningless.